Defense seeks indefinite delay in Douglas County, Reno murders case |

Defense seeks indefinite delay in Douglas County, Reno murders case

By Scott Sonner Associated Press
Wilber Martinez-Guzman, from El Salvador, is walked into the Washoe District Court in Reno, Nev., on Monday, May 20, 2019. Martinez-Guzman faces murder, burglary and weapons charges in the deaths of four people in northern Nevada in January. (Andy Barron/Reno Gazette-Journal via AP, Pool)
AP | Pool Reno Gazette-Journal

RENO — Public defenders say the state’s “rush” to convict an immigrant of four capital killings in Northern Nevada violates his constitutional rights as they press for an indefinite trial delay due to COVID-19 travel restrictions keeping them from gathering evidence in El Salvador about his intellectual ability.

Prosecutors argue in their latest filings in Washoe County District Court that lawyers for 21-year-old Wilber Ernesto Martinez-Guzman have failed to establish the necessary legal grounds “to justify a never-ending continuance of his case.”

Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks said the court recognized in June that “in-person contact with El Salvador could be years away.”

Judge Connie Steinheimer postponed a status hearing late Wednesday where both sides were scheduled to make their arguments in Reno. She cited failure on the part of the defense to meet a filing deadline and said she would reset the hearing date.

Martinez-Guzman, 21, faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted of the killing of an elderly Reno couple and two Gardnerville women in their homes during what authorities say was a 10-day crime rampage in two counties in January 2019.

Martinez-Guzman’s lawyers have said they need to go to El Salvador to gather information about his background. They believe he may have an intellectual disability that would make it illegal to execute him if convicted.

Travel to the country currently is prohibited due to the coronavirus.

Federal officials have said Martinez-Guzman is in the U.S. illegally, but they don’t know how or when he crossed the Mexico border. The case has drawn the attention of President Donald Trump, who used it to bolster his push for a border wall.

Prosecutors say Martinez-Guzman stole a revolver from Gerald and Sharon David in southwest Reno Jan. 4, 2019. They say he fatally shot Constance Koontz on Jan. 9, killed Sophia Renken on Jan. 12 and robbed and killed the Davids on Jan. 15.

Defense lawyers have rejected prosecutors’ insistence that interviews with Martinez-Guzman’s family members and others in El Salvador can be done remotely.

“It can be acknowledged that the pandemic is an inconvenience to the state in its rush to have (him) sentenced to death, however, the pandemic is not a reason to abandon well-established and reliable methods for collection of data that must be relied on by the court in determining if (he) is categorically ineligible for the death penalty,” they wrote in new filings Monday.

They said a remote investigation has limitations that weaken its strength and “open it up for attack by the state.” Limitations include reliable telephone and internet connections, as well as ability to monitor body language and interview family members individually while they “talk about some of the most sensitive subjects in their life.”

“The state is attempting to simplify what is complicated, by comparing the treatment of depression and other common mental health diagnosis via telehealth with an evaluation that will determine whether the ultimate punishment — death — can be legally imposed,” the public defenders said.

They said they’re “not asking for an indefinite continuance for years.” Rather, they want the judge to continue with the current schedule of status hearings every 30-45 days to monitor the progress of the case.

“The desire to bring this case to a resolution cannot be stronger than the desire to maintain fairness, justice and due process,” they wrote.

Hicks said medical experts could conduct their investigation using online platforms to communicate with people in El Salvador, noting that Martinez-Guzman has used Zoom to talk to relatives in El Salvador.

“It is clear that alternative methods exist … and are pragmatic,” he said.